Adapted a dozen times for television and film (most memorably by David Lean back in 1946), the Charles Dickens classic “Great Expectations” is a tale ripe with thematic undercurrents, one that is more than ready for reinvention, interpretation, and reconfiguration. Sadly, no one told this to the makers of the new “Great Expectations” (among them writer David Nicholls and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” director Mike Newell) a stodgy staging of the original text that benefits from occasionally lively characterizations but very little in the way of effervescent freshness, which is desperately vital to a story that has been told so many damn times.
The story, as everyone who has taken a college-level literature course can tell you, is a tale of class and redemption and the big rumbling engine of a city that is London. It concerns a young, impoverished boy named Pip, who, in a stroke of genius casting, is played by Toby Irvine as a boy and then by his older brother Jeremy Irvine when he’s a young man. Pip lives with his older sister (Sally Hawkins, super-screechy) and her husband Joe (Jason Flemyng), a local blacksmith. They live in some indeterminate part of England defined by its goopy marshes and one day Pip encounters an escaped convict named Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes), who threatens to sic another unseemly prisoner on him if he doesn’t bring him something to saw through his chains (and some food too).
Pip agrees, even though he’s incredibly fearful of getting caught, by the local constables but more so of the wrath that would follow if his histrionic sister found out. Magwitch eventually gets caught and covers for Pip, claiming that he stole the saw and food from the local blacksmith. Pip goes back to his very dull life, until he is called upon by a local shut-in, Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter, in a role she was born for), up at her cobwebby mansion. Miss Havisham wants Pip to play with her young ward, Estella (Helena Barlow as young Estella, Holliday Grainger when she’s older). She says something about having “perverse kicks,” but there is clearly something underlying here – Miss Havisham is so encased in heartache that she makes the year-long moping that Kristen Stewart did in one of the “Twilights” seem like a jog around the block. Pip begins to fall in love with young Estella but is dismissed from the mansion and he has no other choice but to go through with his ordinary path, apprenticing Joe in blacksmithing while dreaming of something more. At one point a character asks him, “Does it offend you that I call you a blacksmith.” When Pip replies no, the character says, “Then you are a blacksmith.”
Until, one day, a London lawyer, Jaggers (Robbie Coltrane), who in the everything-is-connected world of Dickens, is also Miss Havisham’s council, tells Pip that he has been endowed by a mysterious benefactor. There are now great expectations placed upon him, as a young gentleman, in bustling London. While in London he deals with his newfound fortunes, befriending a young man named Herbert Pocket (Olly Alexander) and joining a young gentlemen’s club, full of foppish imps like Wemmick (Ewen Bremmer), who Jaggers refers to as “The Spider,” and who becomes the chief romantic rival for the heart of Estella, who has become hardened in a similar way, by years of Miss Havisham’s tutelage. Pip also has to deal with the reemergence of Magwitch, who is now bound to the boy in unique and powerful ways…
We will cease with the plot specifics now, because if, for some reason, you haven’t read the book (or seen one of the dozen adaptations), there are some pretty great revelations towards the end of the story, and they unfold with aplomb in this variation (the first we’ve watched since the end of “Lost,” a show deeply indebted to Dickensian plot mechanics and character relationships). Sometimes these revelations are “downloaded” in a way that seems clunky and clumsy, and when they’re side by side with each other, which is sometimes a necessity when streamlining Dickens’ sprawling text, it teeters to the point of being unwieldy and overwhelming. But most of the story is handled with swiftness and brevity, which is very much appreciated, especially in a year that saw a film based on a board game unapologetically sail past the two-hour mark.
There is much to admire in Newell’s “Great Expectations.” In particular, his depiction of London is wonderfully unflinching – sewage in the streets, mud on the boots, and a general sense of barely contained chaos that many period dramas leave out in favor of stately period fashions and tidy sets. Some of the characterizations, too, leap off the screen, particularly Flemyng’s portrayal of Joe. We’ve always thought that the heart of “Great Expectations” lies not in the relationship between Estella and Pip but in the relationship between Pip and Joe, and this really brings that to the forefront. Flemyng, a perpetually underrated British character actor, does a bang-up job making Joe a fully fleshed-out character and his relationship with Pip one that is deeply heartfelt and sincere. And it goes without saying that Helena Bonham Carter, as a kind of Gothic tableau cocooned in her wedding dress, is superb. When Newell decides to emphasize the tale’s inherent spookiness, she becomes the movie’s centerpiece, and it’s nothing short of haunting.
Elsewhere, though, “Great Expectations” disappoints. There are little tweaks to the story here and there, including an alteration to the ending and a cheeky acknowledgement that Mr. Pocket might be a closeted homosexual (he very flamboyantly introduces himself to Pip by asking, “Fruit?”), but you feel like things could have been pushed further. In 1998, Alfonso Cuaron transplanted the events to the modern Manhattan art scene and, while not completely successful, that made for a compelling take. There’s nothing even approaching that level of reinvention. When Newell introduces the boys’ club, giving them outrageous outfits and hairstyles befitting an Adam Ant music video, your mind begins to sparkle with possibility – maybe he’ll indicate these young men as potential sociopaths; Droogs-in-waiting. But nothing comes of it. Like much of this “Great Expectations,” superficially there’s a lot to admire, but few things to actually fall in love with. It falters under the weight of its expectations. [B]